Andrea Camilleri, Italy: The Sicilian Defense
Talk about a second act. Just 15 years ago, Andrea Camilleri was a virtually unknown septuagenarian with a handful of historical novels to his credit. Today, the 83-year-old Sicily native is Italy’s most successful author, having published more than 40 books and sold more than 20 million copies around the world. His Inspector Montalbano Mysteries have been translated into multiple languages, and The Times [London] named Camilleri one of the “50 Greatest Crime Writers.”
A chain-smoking former Communist, Camilleri took up writing at the age of 53 after a successful career as a script editor, drama teacher, theater director and television producer. Admired for his linguistic flair, Camilleri peppers his novels with the expressive dialect of his Sicilian youth—and is even known to make up a word or two. He lives and works in Rome, where he scours the crime pages of newspapers for ideas.
Scene of the Crime: Vigàta, Sicily
This fictional small town, located on Sicily’s southern coast, is modeled after author Camilleri’s hometown of Porto Empedocle. In 2003, life imitated art when the real-life municipality took the extraordinary step of changing its official denomination to Porto Empedocle Vigàta. Though Sicily’s notorious Mafia and the endemic corruption it breeds are ever-present in the background, Camilleri’s novels focus on crimes of a more regolari nature.
Inspector Salvo Montalbano
Brooding, well-dressed and determined, Inspector Montalbano is a formidable character who demands to be fed—in more ways than one. On the one hand, he’s an enthusiastic gourmand whose commitment to solving crime is matched only by his appreciation of a good meal. But there’s a darker side to Montalbano’s hunger. Camilleri has referred to his most famous brainchild as a “serial killer of characters,” noting that Montalbano’s popularity has given the character a life of his own—one that consumes a great deal of his author’s mental space, crowding out less fortunate protagonists and storylines.
While he battles forces of power of corruption that attempt to block his path to the truth, Montalbano stays honest, decent and hard-working. He has a healthy mistrust of government institutions and perhaps a less healthy mistrust of his colleagues, often preferring to rely on his own instincts. He’s cynical but compassionate; prone to outbursts but quick with a joke. And when it comes to women, let’s just say it gets a little complicato.
You’re 83 years old and still writing. What keeps you going, and what do you love about writing?
What keeps me writing is the pleasure of writing. I love writing when it manages to be complete because it has expressed everything one wanted to say.
What’s it like to have such enormous success late in life? Do you think you would have experienced it differently if you had been younger when it hit?
I’m forever convinced that things happen when they’re supposed to happen, and this is why I’m unable to question myself about my success. If it had happened to me when I was younger, it probably would have had a much stronger effect on me. This way, its effect has been much more relative.
What did you learn from your background in theater and drama that you apply to your novel writing?
I learned a lot both from my experience in theatre and my work in television. From the theatre I learned above all the best manner in which to express a situation through dialogue alone. Television taught me how to divide the chapters in my writing—that is, cutting the action not in a classical manner, but by sequence—and how to write detective novels, mysteries, since as the television producer of the Maigret series, I had a chance to see how the novel was taken apart from the inside in order to be rebuilt in the form of a television script.
Are there liabilities to being an honest person like Montalbano in a society like Vigàta’s that is rife with corruption?
Honesty, in my opinion—though I believe I’m in a minority—has more disadvantages than advantages. Therefore Montalbano, being a profoundly honest man, has been forced to harden himself against the sort of dishonesty that surrounds him.
You’ve said that Montalbano is a “serial killer of characters” because he demands so much of your attention and intellectual space. How do you keep him at bay when you need to?
Montalbano is, frankly, very invasive, often disturbingly so. I manage to keep him at bay in two ways: either by writing, every now and then, a short story or two, the way one throws meat to the wolves that follow behind the sleigh, or by swearing to him by all that’s holy that as soon as I finish the novel I’m working on, the next one I write will surely be about him.
The Inspector Montalbano Mysteries
- The Shape of Water (2002)
- The Terra-Cotta Dog (2002)
- The Snack Thief (2003)
- Voice of the Violin (2003)
- The Excursion to Tindari (2005)
- The Smell of the Night (2005)
- Rounding the Mark (2006)
- The Patience of the Spider (2007)
- The Paper Moon (2008)
- August Heat (2009)
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